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Gasolina manager Francisco Sanabia
Gasolina manager Francisco Sanabia pours another shot of the sweet herbal spirit mamajuana. Eli Meixler

Gasolina doused in the spirit of the Caribbean

The long-standing eatery’s gregarious new manager has big plans – and they involve a great big bottle of homemade ‘mamajuana’

Gasolina restaurant has undergone a culinary makeover as a gregarious new manager from the Dominican Republic merges Mekong flavours with Caribbean spirit.

Francisco Sanabia, a 51-year-old Santo Domingo native, doesn’t think the two places are so different.

“My home is on the other side of the world, but it’s on the same equatorial [line],” he said, preparing sauce for a pig to be roasted on a stick.

“We eat rice, they eat rice. We eat a lot of pork, here they eat a lot of pork as well. And chicken, chicken!”

After taking over the kitchen at the Boeung Keng Kang restaurant in September, he revamped the menu, tweaking old recipes – replacing river fish in his fish amok with fresh seafood and the coconut milk with cow’s, for example, and adding a rotating array of Latin specialities.

The main change has been the introduction of themed lunchtime specials: Wednesday is Latin American, whether Cuban (he sometimes serves black beans and rice with bacon) or El Salvadoran, while Friday is British-style fish and chips. But he’s most proud of the Sunday lunchtime paellas, with seafood ($7.50) and meat ($6.50) options lasting from noon until he sells out.

True to Sanabia’s eccentricities, his paellas are not necessarily what you’d eat at a Spanish cantina. Last Sunday, anticipating a low turnout following Christmas, he decided to add baby broccoli, local edible flowers and noodles to the traditional meat and rice dish from Valencia.

“I play with the paella – I want to invent,” he said, adding that he ended up feeding 14 people.

Sanabia’s culinary journey began in the 1990s, when he owned a neighbourhood pub in the centre of Santo Domingo. The bar literally made its mark, he said, with a whimsical gimmick that his friends back home still rib him for.

“One day, the business was going down, so I announced on the radio that if you buy two shots of tequila, then free tattoo for you,” he said as he showed off a tattoo on his right shoulder of his old bar’s logo – a mythical Dominican ciguapa woman with long hair and backward-facing feet.

“Now all my friends, when I go to Santa Domingo, say: ‘We have this because of you … and the tequila!’”

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Among Sanabia’s most prized possessions from home is “the green bottle” he has travelled with for the past 15 years.

Filled with wood and herbs from the Dominican Republic, he regularly tops it off with aged dark rum and honey to create a traditional sweet herbal spirit called mamajuana.

The only ingredient Sanabia misses from home, he said, is the plantain. While plantains are a staple in the Dominican Republic, here he is forced to make do with bananas. But he hopes to start his own supply when he brings a plantain tree back with him from his next visit home, he said.

More immediately, he plans to introduce a Khmer-style BBQ special for Saturday lunch complete with lungs, hearts and stomachs. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

“I love the interior organs… I went to a Khmer BBQ and I thought: this is what I have to do.”

Sanabia’s lunchtime specials are offered every day except Mondays and Thursdays from noon till supplies run out. Find him at Gasolina, #56-57 Street 57.



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